Emerging Technology Planning

Portable Reference Devices: ILS in the Palm of Your Hand


A little while back, I attended a workshop put on by CLA out in Berkeley. One of the presenters was the Library Administrator for Downey City Library, where he spoke about the challenges that his team faced when their branch began a lengthy remodeling period. Staff was notified that they would not be getting a temporary location and so they began to think of clever ways to continue providing their patrons with library services. Outdoor storytimes and partnerships with local theaters and museums for author and performer visits, these are some of the ways they managed without a physical location. This led staff to reconsider ways they could take what they learned and apply it to their new building and the idea of a mobile ILS terminal was born.

Purpose and Benefits

The Half Moon Bay Library is the current newest building in the San Mateo County Libraries System. The library is a two-story LEED Platinum certified building that is innovative as it is beautiful. Being the newest building in the system has led to piloting of devices, services, and policies, to see if they would be a good fit for the rest of the system. HMB is the only library in the system to implement the concept of roving staff. We still have a laptop with Sierra for basic library services, but it lives on a bulky medical cart. It is not very mobile.

To fully realize the dream of roaming library staff, I propose to implement a portable version Sierra through a handheld device that would allow the staff member to carry out functions such as searching the catalog and checking out items right in the stacks. By implementing such a device, staff members can provide essential library service at the point-of-need. In a similar program instituted at the University of Manitoba, Katharine Penner said, “rovers can provide quick access and on-the-spot reference all while grabbing the attention of the patron.” (Penner, 2011)

Goals/Objectives for Technology or Service:

  1. Respect our patrons time by providing on the spot reference help, to find the materials they are looking for in the stacks or at a different location in our system.
  2. Respect staff by making sure there is no one keeper of all information. Democratizing our ILS to all staff and allowing everyone to have the same access to all the tools at all times.
  3. Fully realize the roaming “librarian” model by going a step further and getting rid of the laptop cart. All staff currently use and are comfortable using walkie talkies, having a fully functional mobile version of Sierra device would complete the goal of having fully roaming staff.  

Description of Community

I wish to engage both library staff and patrons of San Mateo County Libraries, specifically the Half Moon Bay branch, with a potential to expand systemwide in the future.  

Action Brief Statement


Convince staff that by using the mobile ILS terminal they will be providing the best service possible which will save both patron and staff time because they will meet the patron at their point of need.

Library Administration

Convince Library Admin team that by purchasing and developing the equipment necessary to aid the roaming model they will be helping to achieve their customer care philosophy goals which will lead to more customer satisfaction because their needs are being met at the point of need.

Evidence and Resources to support Technology or Service:

  • Barnhart, F. D., & Pierce, J. E. (2012). Becoming Mobile: Reference in the Ubiquitous   Library. Journal of Library Administration, 52(6-7), 559–570. doi:       10.1080/01930826.2012.707954
  • Hibner, H. (2005). The wireless librarian: Using tablet PCs for ultimate reference and     customer service: A case study. Library Hi Tech News, 22(5), 19-22. doi:
  • Miao, H., & Mia, W. B. (2007). Embracing customer service in libraries. LibraryManagement, 28(1), 53-61.doi:


  • Mirtz, M. (2013). The second half of reference: An analysis of point-of-need roving        reference questions. Retrieved from
  • Stellrecht, E., & Chiarella, D. (2015). Targeted Evolution of Embedded Librarian           Services: Providing Mobile Reference and Instruction Services Using    iPads. Medical Reference Services Quarterly, 34(4), 397–406. doi: 10.1080/02763869.2015.1082372

Mission, Guidelines, and Policy related to Technology or Service:

The following is the current internal San Mateo County Libraries Customer Care Philosophy:

We make using the library easy  

We are convenient, easy to use and accessible. We offer the items, experiences, and technologies you want. 

We love to help you maketinker, and learn new things 

We inspire curiosity, learning, and growth by supporting you to accomplish your goals. 

You will feel welcomed and cared about in our spaces 

We create warm, inclusive spaces where people of every background create community and access free, shared resources.

Taking guidance from the Customer Care Philosophy and the experience that the Half Moon Bay branch staff has with roaming, the Library Administration team can take these things to make guidelines and expectations for roaming staff equipped with these ILS enabled iPod touches.

Funding Considerations for this Technology or Service

As stated above, Half Moon Bay is the only branch in the SMCL system to currently utilize roving reference. Being that the branch is a testbed for many other pieces of equipment and policy, I would like to propose that the branch be used as a test for the iPod touch as a reference device. San Mateo County Libraries regularly holds a yearly Staff Development Day, where staff from all 12 branches and the admin team, take a day to come together and do teambuilding activities. (2015)

Aside from the training, bonding, and learning that is done during Staff Development Day, there is a portion of time that is dedicated to “Pitch-It”, which is a program where staff can suggest new ideas for new library offerings and the winner gets a small budget to put their plan into action and test for the rest of the branches. Our most recent winner was for the “Book-A-Bike” program, which lets patrons check out a bike for a day over at the Belmont Library. (Vargas, 2019) A future Pitch-It would be the ideal place to present this new idea.

Action Steps & Timeline: (Can your target Technology or Service be prototyped? What’s a reasonable timeline for this project? What are the project flow dependencies? Who has to say “yes?” What are the planned alternatives if there is a “no.”)

SMCL currently has a public facing app (Miranda, 2018), which allows users basic library functions such as checking out books from select eResources, placing holds on items, and checking account status. The app itself is built on Bibliocommons using Sierra APIs. Along with guidance from Downey City Library, who upon their re-opening will implement a similar version of what I am proposing, has offered up their app for other library systems to use as a base level from which to build upon their own version of a handheld ILS.

  1. Preliminary Information Gathering (1 Month)
    1. Propose idea to manager for initial approval and to gage interest
    1. Work with IT to get a quote for materials cost
    1. Prepare and present Pitch-It presentation with material and staff cost for this initiative
  2. Purchase Materials (1 Month)
    1. iPod touch, RFID and 2D Scanner case to be ordered and shipped.
  3. Create App (3 months)
    1. Current app will be used as base from which to add more functionality for reference, for checking-out, and for fast library card sign up. APIs from Sierra will be added and bug tested.
  4. Testing Roll-out (2 months)
    1. iPods with the new app will begin small batch testing. First with IT staff. (1 month)
    1. Combined testing with a few staff members and IT (1 month)
  5. Main Roll-Out (1 Year)
    1. Staff will be given the iPod touches for a year of real-world use.  
    1. Every 3 months, IT will ask for an evaluation to see what issues arise and if there is anything that can be implemented
  6. Evaluation for Major Distribution (3 months)     
    1. After testing phase has concluded at Half Moon Bay, IT will evaluate success or failure and decide to implement at other locations, with possibility to be extended to whole system.

Staffing Considerations for this Technology or Service 

San Mateo County Libraries is a centralized organization with an administration building that houses material sorting for the Peninsula Library System, Administrative offices for SMCL, and IT. IT currently manages the public facing SMCL app. This would be an extension of responsibilities for the staff members assigned to that task. 3 of the 4 total staff members are full-time employees. This app could provide enough hours to allow the 4th staff member to also become a full-time employee.

On the branch side, the In-House Techs would be the ones responsible for any questions and troubleshooting the hardware and software. Any issues that the IHT cannot resolve will require a Help Desk ticket, SMCL’s internal tech request system.  

Training for this Technology or Service

The full concept of truly roaming staff member has already been halfway accomplished at the Half Moon Bay Library. Currently, the second floor of the library is serviced by roaming staff members equipped with a walkie-talkie. There is also a laptop on a mobile nurse station cart, that is equipped with a scanner for library cards and library materials, as well as Sierra.

Training for this particular service would be specifically for how the device and the mobile version of the ILS. All staff members who are on the floor would be assigned an iPod. The training in theory could be done in a quick 30-minute run down of how the device works, this could be done in a class style where all staff members would get a chance to get acquainted with the ins and outs of the iPod and the accompanying RFID reader and 2-D Scanner and the mobile ILS.

Another option for training would be hands-on, in the stacks, learn as you go. The app is written in a simple enough manner that reference work and regular library questions about accounts can be quickly found through the easy-to-use interface.

Promotion & Marketing for this Technology or Service

Internally, iPods would require very little buy in or promotion, as roaming is already implemented at the branch. There would be a small adjustment period for staff to get used to carrying their mobile ILS onto the floor.

Externally, a big marketing push could be made for this new service at point of need. The website could have a banner promoting the new service and a staff member could write up all the great new things patrons could look forward to, such as being able to check out on the spot, making new library cards on the spot, and a full suite of reference solutions such as finding books in the collection from other branches or even Link+ (“LINK+”) Promotional posters, flyers, bookmarks, could all be ordered for in branch display and to promote the service at other branches to gain interest.

A successful past Pitch-It


The success or the failure of the service hinges on number of positive interactions. The way to measure this is if more patrons are able to satisfy all of their needs that they would normally have to go to the circulation desk for. We could measure data within the app how many times the service is being used and how many checkouts or books are being placed on hold. We could see how many cards have been made on the go and compare those numbers to the interactions that happen on desk.

Success or failure of the devices themselves is reliant on two key components. How successful the hardware is at completing its function of scanning ID cards for fast field population and fast library card creation, how fast or successful it is at scanning library material either through RFID or barcode. The back-half of this success is measured on how stable the mobile app is. If there are too many crashes or bugs, it may need more time for the code to be worked on. At this point it will be about 2 years after inception and at which point it may be a lost cause. However, if there are minimal bugs and the software is stable, then we may begin to look at a bigger rollout for the system.

Stories that I envision being able to tell are stories of quickly being able to scan someone’s ID and being able to make them a library card in 10 seconds as advertised by the Downey City Library. If this program is a success, we could look at implementing patron checkouts on the public facing app, similar to Apple Store in-app in-store purchases. Find the item you want in branch, scan, and go. I hope that I will be able to lessen the burden of having to stand in line to ask a quick reference question. More than anything, I hope that we can tell stories about lowering boundaries and further democratizing the use of all library services.

Works Cited

Askew, Consuella. (2015). A Mixed Methods Approach to Assessing Roaming Reference Services. Evidence Based Library and Information Practice, 10(2), 21-33.

Bremer, P. pbremer@morris. umn. ed. (2017). Librarian on the Loose: A Roving Reference Desk at a Small Liberal Arts College. Reference Librarian58(1), 106–110.

LINK . (n.d.). Retrieved from;jsessionid=34FE4B2C8A6596CFECC63C0D4F41CDBC?lang=eng

MacDonald, J., & McCabe, K. (2011). iRoam: Leveraging Mobile Technology to Provide Innovative Point of Need Reference Services. Code4Lib Journal13, 1–7.

McCabe, K. M. 1. mccabek@unbc. c., & MacDonald, J. R. W. 2. macdonaj@unbc. c. (2011). Roaming Reference: Reinvigorating Reference through Point of Need Service. Partnership: The Canadian Journal of Library & Information Practice & Research6(2), 1–15.

Miranda, C. (2018, April 30). Library on the Go! Download Our New Mobile App. Retrieved from

Penner, K. (2011). Mobile Technologies and Roving Reference. Public Services Quarterly., 7(1-2), 27-33.

Peters, T. (2011). Left to Their Own Devices : The Future of Reference Services on Personal, Portable Information, Communication, and Entertainment Devices. The Reference Librarian., 52(1/2), 88-97.

Renovation. (n.d.). Retrieved from

San Mateo County Library Joint Powers Authority Operations Committee Agenda April 28, 2015, (2015). Retrieved from

Vargas, D. (2019). Book-A-Bike at Belmont Library. Retrieved from

One reply on “Emerging Technology Planning”

Sacramento Public Library also uses Sierra, so this plan really intrigues me! We don’t really have roving librarians in our system but having access to a portable Sierra model could change that, and I love the idea of it cutting down lines at the circulation desk at our busiest branches! Having seen how often Sierra acts up on our end though, there will definitely need to be more frequent IT checks than every three months at the beginning of the process.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *